The uncertain Tide: Hendrix, Steele test the waters

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Alabama coach Mark Gottfried ran into the Milk House on Wednesday night, making it into the arena just in time for the latter few minutes of the first game at the NBA's pre-draft camp that happened to involve the Tide's Richard Hendrix on one team and Ronald Steele on the other.

Gottfried was coming in from Destin, Fla., on a private jet from the SEC meetings in the hope that he could catch a glimpse of two-fifths of his starting five for next season's team -- if they return.

"We've got half our team here, so it's important," Gottfried said. "It's tricky. I want them to do well and hope both of our guys would be lottery picks, but I also want them to make good decisions."

Gottfried said the early-entry process dominated discussion at the SEC meetings, with the coaches hoping they could do something to change the NBA's calendar of allowing players to declare in late April and then wait until 10 days before the draft in late June to withdraw (this year, the withdrawal date is June 16 given the June 26 draft).

"But until this [the pre-draft camp] started two days ago, nothing really took place," Gottfried said of the NBA prohibiting workouts for individual teams until after this camp. "How this affects your team, the players on campus working out, everything. For us, we're lucky that our guys are in great academic shape [he said both have graduated]. There are a lot of things we want to look at to see if there is anything we can do to shorten the period."

But there may not be a way to fix the limbo period for college coaches.

Last year, Nevada's Mark Fox was in this same precarious position, watching his starting backcourt, Marcelus Kemp and Ramon Sessions, here at the pre-draft camp to see if he was going to field a competitive team the following season. Sessions stayed in the draft and was taken in the second round by Milwaukee. Kemp returned to school.

North Carolina has three underclassmen here trying to stay in the draft, and coach Roy Williams was in attendance watching Wednesday night. The Tar Heels will still be loaded even if Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green decide to stay in the draft, with national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough returning for his senior season.

But Alabama isn't as fortunate. The Tide need forward Hendrix, who averaged 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds, and point guard Steele, who sat out last season after three knee surgeries but averaged 8.6 points and 4.0 assists during the 2006-07 season. So Gottfried and assistant coaches James Holland and Phillip Pearson were at the pre-draft camp on Wednesday night.

"We all wanted to come down, because if you don't come down and see for yourself, how can you sit down and talk to them and say what they did wrong or right," Holland said.

The 6-foot-9 Hendrix had a solid game by going 5-of-7 from the field, scoring 12 points and grabbing five rebounds against players like Maryland's James Gist, South Florida's Kentrell Gransberry and Kansas' Darnell Jackson. But it's all relative to the competition. Can Hendrix get into the first round? Possibly. Is he a lock? Not at all.

"I want to make it, to achieve my goal, to get as high in the draft as I can," Hendrix said. "My goal is to be a first-round pick. I want to be a first-round pick, something guaranteed."

Steele is in a unique situation. The point guard sat out last season after having arthroscopic surgery on both knees in April 2007 and then a follow-up surgery on his left knee in August 2007. He practiced, sparingly, from late December through the rest of the season, but he wasn't featured during practice since he wasn't playing. His absence was part of the reason the Tide finished 5-11 in the SEC and just 17-16 overall.

Steele came here to prove that he can still play, to make a name for himself and hopefully get a guarantee that he will be selected. But he understands that there could be an adverse affect to his draft stock if he were slow and didn't show that he was healthy.

Steele didn't wow Wednesday, shooting 1-of-3 from the floor, dishing out six assists, committing four fouls and having one steal and one turnover. He did get to the free-throw line three times and converted all three. But on one exchange, Michigan State's Drew Neitzel blew past him to the hoop for a layup.

Steele said that midway through this past season, he felt he was healthy enough to try this, to use this opportunity to show the NBA that he is healthy. But this is the first time he has played five-on-five since the end of the season two months ago.

"You hope coming here doesn't have a negative affect on Ron, but he's the only one that knows [how healthy he is], and he said he felt good," Gottfried said.

Steele said he doesn't have a cut-off point of where he could be selected to stay in the draft. But he doesn't want to make a mistake, and he'll discuss the decision with his family and the Tide staff.

Both Steele and Hendrix empathize with the uncertain situation that the Alabama coaching staff is facing as the two players test the draft waters.
But this is also a time when a player declaring for the draft has to be a bit selfish, too.

"I have a great relationship with the staff," Hendrix said. "I loved my time at the University of Alabama, but this is an opportunity for me to show what I have and take my talent to the next level."

Hendrix said he has workouts set up with Boston, Indiana and a few others he couldn't remember after the camp. Steele may have to wait to see if he gets calls for workouts after this week. But if he returns to school, he has a rare chance to play with his brother, Andrew, who signed with Alabama to play the point next season. Steele would be a fifth-year senior, so he wouldn't have had a chance to play with his brother if he hadn't have been hurt. But Steele said that has no impact on his decision.

The Tide nearly lost a third starter to the draft when Alonzo Gee declared, too. But Gee didn't receive an invite to the pre-draft camp, so he returned to school last week. The Tide signed one of the top players in the class of 2008, too, in power forward JaMychal Green, giving them a potential impact scorer to either accompany Hendrix or replace him next season.

"With them both back, we'll have two All-SEC players returning," Gottfried said. "If for some reason Ron and Richard didn't play [next season], then I still think we'll be pretty good and we'll find a way to become good. But obviously a coach wants his best players to be playing."

The Tide won't know what they have for another few weeks as they sweat this process out -- yet again.

The early-entry process keeps changing, and Gottfried has gone through this before with Gerald Wallace, Mo Williams, Rod Grizzard, Kennedy Winston, Jermareo Davidson and now Gee, Hendrix and Steele.

"We want them to understand that if they go in the first round, that's a positive for us," Holland said. "If they go in the second round, then that's a negative for us. We want people to know that we produce first-round picks."

And so Alabama, coming off a season in which the Tide didn't make the NCAA tournament, waits out the decisions of these two starters.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.